France Football's Philippe Auclair is bringing us a three-part special report into Qatar's controversial hosting of the 2022 World Cup. In part one, he looks at how FIFA found itself in such a mess, and how Sepp Blatter has potentially opened up a huge rupture in the global game. Parts two and three will be published on Thursday and Friday.
Two years and nine months after FIFA’s Executive Committee awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar in perplexing circumstances, the uncertainty lingers: no one knows for sure what lies on that horizon, which could yet prove to be a mirage.
Sepp Blatter, who masters double negatives with something of PG Wodehouse’s virtuosity for similes and metaphors, did nothing to dispel the clouds that are gathering over the fate of that tournament when he spoke on the subject little over a week ago.
"I would be very much surprised, more than surprised, if the ExCo will not accept the principle that you cannot play in summer in Qatar," the 77 year-old said. That at least was unambiguous. But what you would have expected to hear next - "therefore, we will play in winter" - was not forthcoming.
Cue much scratching of heads. What could Blatter possibly mean? That the competition could still be moved to another country? But that, only Blatter knows. What a mess. What a predictable mess.
It’s not as if the FIFA panjandrums, shorn of two of their number (Amos Adamu and Reynald Temarii, who’d been suspended for violations of the organisation’s code of ethics), hadn’t known what was in store. The technical report which had been submitted to them prior to the vote had warned that Qatar was a 'high risk' bid, precisely because of the dangers posed to the health of players, fans and officials by the searing heat of the summer in the Gulf.
The not-so-wise men ignored these findings, and here we are now, heading for a crisis that might change the face of football forever.
This is not an exaggeration. What is at stake here is not just whether a minuscule gas-rich country with close to zero football tradition will be allowed to host the World Cup, but whether, to honour the pledge made by FIFA to the emirate, it is worth tearing up the football calendar and precipitating an open conflict between leagues, national associations, confederations and FIFA, all of which have their own opinion on the topic – and colossal interests at stake.
One way or another, that head-on crash is unavoidable. It had been from the outset.
Remember the weeks leading to December 2, 2010. Not a day passed by without allegations of murky dealings and corruption. By taking the soft-headed decision to hold the ballot to award both the 2018 and 2022 World Cups on the same day, FIFA had made sure that countries bidding for one or the other tournament would collude to rake in as many votes as they could. I’ll support you for 2018, you support me for 2022, and vice-versa.
As early as February 2010, it was whispered that Qatar had reached some kind of arrangement with the Spanish-Portuguese bid. The influence of the Iberians in Latin America could help bring in as much as four extra votes to Qatar – those of Argentinian Julio Grondona, Guatemalan Rafael Salguero, Brazilian Ricardo Teixeira and Paraguayan Nicolas Leoz – on top of the support of Spaniard Angel Maria Villar Llona.
Whilst a FIFA investigation cleared both bids of the accusation of collusion, Sepp Blatter later commented: "I'll be honest, there was a bundle of votes between Spain and Qatar. But it was a nonsense. It was there but it didn't work, not for one and not for the other side."
It certainly didn’t work for Spain, who lost out to Russia in the second round of voting; but regardless of the particulars, the tone had been set. Suspicion and rancour would always surround FIFA’s choice.
Looking back on these events, German Theo Zwanziger, who was elected to FIFA's Executive Committee in 2011, recently called the decision to award the 2022 tournament to Qatar "a blatant mistake". It may have been in the grander scheme of things; but in the minds of those who made it, a number of whom have left FIFA since, not always gracefully, it was the logical conclusion of a political process that did nothing to enhance their organisation’s reputation.
If Qatar was guilty of wrongdoing – which has never been satisfactorily substantiated - the real culprit was FIFA, which had allowed for this nefarious process to take place in the first instance.
Still, things could have settled down, despite occasional revelations which cast doubt on the validity of the vote without, again, producing the required smoking gun. It could’ve been possible to make the most out of a bad thing; but it all changed when Blatter – widely believed to have voted for the USA, not Qatar, in 2010 – made an astonishing U-turn in August of this year.
Having previously maintained that the World Cup was to be played in June and July, as stated in the tender documents which all bidding countries had to abide by, the FIFA president announced that he’d come to share the view of Michel Platini (a staunch supporter of Qatar and of the winter switch from the word go) and Franz Beckenbauer that the 2022 World Cup could only be staged during what is the coolest season in the emirate.
It had taken him over two years to find his road to Damascus. Why? His argument – that new medical evidence had been made available to FIFA – didn’t withstand scrutiny; there was nothing new in those reports that no one has seen outside of Zurich. And what of the Qataris’ claim that revolutionary 'green' air-cooling technologies would be developed in time to create some kind of artificial spring in the summer of 2022, a claim which had been bought at face value by the Executive Committee in 2010? What of Blatter’s previous insistence that the date of the World Cup’s opening game could only be changed if the Qataris themselves requested it cap in hand?
These questions had suddenly become irrelevant, for no other reason than Blatter had batted them out of the park.
What he's succeeded in doing, however, is to create a storm that will not abate soon. As you’ll see in the next of these columns, the winter switch might solve one problem, but only at the expense of creating a myriad others. That silver bullet has been directed straight at FIFA’s own feet.
There are legal problems: how will the losers of 2010 – Australia, USA, Korea and Japan – react if and when it is decided that the tender they spent millions to respect was not worth the paper it was printed on? By suing FIFA?
There are logistical problems too: should the 2022 World Cup be played in November and December, football seasons as we know them would have to be re-defined everywhere at every level, and perhaps forever, though nobody has the faintest idea of how this can be achieved. That is provided all parties would agree, which is certainly in doubt at the moment: the Premier League is by no means isolated in its outspoken opposition to a winter World Cup.
Blatter knew all this before he spoke. He was aware of the aftershock that would ensue. If he, the politician of the age, precipitated the current crisis, it is because he wanted the crisis to happen, for a purpose that will only become clear in time.
It is true that there was no alternative. It is true that holding a tournament of that magnitude during the Qatari summer is impossible. It is also true that this probably is the only thing on which all are in agreement today.
Philippe Auclair, biographer of Eric Cantona (The Rebel Who Would Be King, winner of the Football Book Of The Year Award in 2010) and Thierry Henry, England and international affairs correspondent for France Football magazine and RMC radio station, contributor to The Blizzard.
On Twitter: @PhilippeAuclair